Wednesday, December 17, 2008

District view of AP at odds with universities

Updated February 5, 2009:

In October, a parent of a student in Spokane Public Schools sent me copies of his email to the district and the district’s response. The parent was concerned that “the math District 81 is teaching will not prepare our students for entry into colleges both in WA and around our nation… Students are graduating from local high schools with A's in honors math and are having to take remedial math to get into college.”

The district response to this parent came from Rick Biggerstaff, secondary mathematics coordinator and AP calculus teacher at Lewis & Clark High School. Biggerstaff reassured the worried parent, noting (in part) that Advanced Placement enrollments and “passing scores” are increasing. (Advanced Placement classes are college-level classes that are taken in high school. School districts often point to increasing AP enrollments and pass rates as indicators that mathematics achievement is improving.) Biggerstaff wrote:

“… I can say that our district continues to increase enrollment in AP classes and statistically performs very well on the AP exam. In the 12 years that I have personally been involved with the AP calculus program I have watched the number of students in AP mathematics throughout our district double in volume, seen the program go from no high school statistics programs, to each high school having at least one AP statistics class, and watched the number of passing scores on these tests grow significantly. … What matters is the level of cognitive engagement in our classrooms. Whether you arrive at that through a traditional approach or non-traditional approach is not nearly as significant as focusing on student engagement. We believe our increased numbers in ‘honors’ level math along with a growth in passing AP scores reflects our work in this area.”Naturally, this response piqued my interest. The entire point of school is to gain useful information and skills for the next grades and for postsecondary life. If AP enrollment and pass rates are increasing, these could be indicators that student knowledge is increasing. Recognizing, however, that there has been much speculation in the nation about what education statistics actually represent, I called the district to determine Spokane’s AP enrollments and pass rates. Staff members were unable to give me AP enrollments specifically (that data is lumped in with honors enrollment), but they sent me a table of AP exam results from 1992 to 2008. Here is part of that table:

Summary of AP Exam Results

1992 2000 2008
Number of students 193 368 1093
Number of exams 271 636 2028
Number of course areas 13 15 27
Number of exams passed 198 515 1099
Percent passing 73% 81% 54%
Average grade 3.18 3.45 2.72

Average Passing Grade

1992 2000 2008
Spokane 3.18 3.45 2.72
Washington 3.02 3.10 2.87
Western Region 3.08 3.03 2.86
Global 3.05 3.02 2.85

According to the full table, numbers of exam-takers steadily increased from 2000 to 2008, while the percent passing and the average grades steadily decreased. In 2000, 368 students took AP exams; 81% achieved a score of 3 or greater ("3" has traditionally been considered a passing grade.) Their average grade was 3.45. In 2008, however, 1,093 students took exams; 54.2% achieved a 3 or greater. Their average grade was 2.72. This decline occurred despite the near doubling of course areas in which students took their exams – from 15 course areas in 2000 to 27 course areas in 2008. Meanwhile, since 2001, the full-time enrollment in District 81 dropped by about 2,000 students. Therefore, AP enrollment and AP exam-taking increased despite a decrease in overall student population.

In 2000, Spokane students scored better on their AP exams than students in certain other areas. In 2008, however, Spokane students did less well than students in those other areas.

Technically, Spokane administrators can say that the number of students passing AP exams has increased. In 2000, 81% of 636 student exams were passed, for a total of 515 exams passed. In 2008, 54.2% of 2,028 student exams were passed, for a total of 1,099 exams passed. In effect, 584 more exams were passed in 2008 than in 2000.

Technically, however, it can also be said that the number of students failing AP exams has increased. In 2000, 19% of student exams (121 total) were not passed, while in 2008, 45.8% of student exams (929 total) were not passed. In effect, 808 more exams were failed in 2008 than in 2000.

In 2008 in AP mathematics, 66% of the students achieved a 3 or better on their exams. At Lewis & Clark High School, just 24% achieved a 3 or better on the Calculus AB exam; in Calculus BC, 59% did. In 2007, just 36% of the Lewis & Clark students achieved a 3 or better on the Calculus AB exam; in Calculus BC, 53% did.

Do these numbers indicate district improvement in mathematics? Much depends on how important you think it is to achieve a score of at least 3. Last year, a school board member commented that students who failed to achieve a 3 or better on their AP exams "must have learned something while they were there.” A district administrator told me today the College Board (which runs the AP program) says schools shouldn’t “talk about pass rates” because colleges vary in what they’ll accept. I asked her if schools should at least have a target in mind, and she said, “Not necessarily.” AP courses are rigorous and accredited, she said, so “it’s hard” to make pass rates “a concern.”

Folks, if we aren’t concerned with pass rates, if we don’t even have a target, how do parents and students know when they’ve achieved what they want to achieve? How do the universities know? How do employers know? How does the district know when it’s failed to do its job?

It turns out the universities do know. Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University and the University of Washington (Seattle) all indicate that - depending on the subject - they give credit for passing scores of 3, 4 or 5. For example, Gonzaga gives credit for AP calculus scores of 4 or 5. Spokane's community colleges also give credit for scores of 3, 4 or 5. The College Board probably knows, too. It says the 5-point scale represents the following:

5 – extremely well qualified
4 – well qualified
3 – qualified
2 – possibly qualified
1 – no recommendation

School administrators know, too. Students in Washington must obtain at least a "3" on AP math exams in order to use the classes as alternatives to the 10th-grade math WASL.

So I worry about those 929 failed AP exams in 2008 and the drop in the average grade. I worry about students who are ushered into AP classes, who fail to achieve at least a 3 on the exams, and about whom we’re supposed to say, “Well, they must have learned something while they were there.” Sadly for them, some will have learned that achievement doesn’t matter. It does, though. It always will. They’ll find that out on their own – the hard way.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (December, 2008). "District view of AP at odds with universities." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also published December 18, 2008, in at

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